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FSU-Clemson Redux, or The More Things Change...

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It's so difficult to account for momentum, and under most circumstances I try to eschew the notion in favor of blocking, tackling and brains, but the halftime swing Monday night was palpable. Florida State's first blocked punt did nothing to stop the downhill train to oblivion that defined its first half, and Clemson immediately matched the field goal after a big kick return by C.J. Spiller, who, highly attentive viewers may have noticed, is very fast.

Florida State's first half was best summed up by the TV close-ups on its coaches: weary depression on the face of Bobby Bowden, frowning, frenzied chomping and occasional tantrums all the way to the numbers by Mickey Andrews, Jimbo Fisher alternately cussing and lecturing Drew Weatherford from the booth and Rick Trickett clearly capping an upbraiding of a lineman after a fourth down holding penalty by yelling "Fuck you!" in his face, then repeating it a few times for good measure. Just to drive the humiliation home. Jeff Bowden never seemed as tortured as all that, but the results on the field were depressingly reminiscent of Jeffy's piece d'resistance of lo-fi ineptitude at Miami last Labor Day: FSU's eleven drives in the first two quarters resulted in nine punts, one first down and a fumble. For all the new coaching prowess honing the prototype FSU superstuds into well-oiled killing machines, Florida State didn't execute a single play; even its lone first down, on the first snap of the game, was an impromptu scramble by Weatherford. At one point, I found myself thinking, "Just throw the ball up to Greg Carr and let him go get it, try something to get it in his hands," and in that moment, I knew empathy.

Clemson, meanwhile, was fast, efficient, simultaneously everywhere Florida State ballcarriers wanted to be and everywhere FSU defenders were not. The defensive line couldn't be blocked, and Mark Schlabach is right that the Noles have ceded their once-inviolable talent edge, as Spiller and James Davis made abundantly clear. The Tigers pass the eyeball test as the big, quick, chiseled monsters we've always associated with the elder Bowden.

James Davis endangers his eligibility by becoming a walking driving, juking, fire-breathing Nike ad.
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But then, Clemson has its own demons to exorcise, as it demonstrated by turning in a second half that mirrored both Florida State's first and its own failure down the stretch last year, when a similarly talented, in-position team let its foot off the ACC's throat after crushing Georgia Tech and lost four of its last five. Spiller and Davis lost their pop, fizzled and started limping around - where was the Wildcat-esque formation with Cullen Harper split wide and the two speed guys in the backfield, which Florida State hardly stopped in the rare instances it was deployed? - and the Tigers wound up punting on five of its six second half possessions and snapping the ball over the punter's head for a safety on the other (heads up play there, kid). If not for the defense cutting short FSU's bid to go ahead in Clemson territory with under three minutes to play - having already allowed touchdown drives on two of the first three possessions of the half, the other being a 42-yard march that fizzled in Tiger territory - it would have been deja vu in Death Valley and a crisis of identity: why can't we finish?

As it is, though, the defense did hold the early advantage and the Tigers are credited with one of the most impressive wins of the opening weekend. At halftime, I was thinking it could be the most impressive win, which would earn Clemson the top spot on my initial resumé-based Blog Poll ballot. We were made to wonder about the offensive line, receivers, cornerback and especially quarterback, and all looked terrific - or, in the latter case, more than adequate - out of the gate. But once FSU decided Harper was no more of a deep threat with his arm than Will Proctor was, and to, like, tackle and stuff, the jig was up. Again. So the final result might be worth a top five vote this week, given my initial regard for Florida State, but it's accompanied by far less optimism than it was two quarters ago.